In Washington, the first "normal" summer in years draws to an end. What a relief it's been for those of us who have remained behind.
Past summers brought real -- or inflated -- crises to the capital. They transformed what used to be the slow pace of a sleepy southern city into a fractious, still-stifling and embattled political center where high tempers and huge frustrations became the norm.
Since the early 1960s, Washington has had to deal, summer after summer, with the civil rights protests spawned by the violence and bloodshed in the South, culminating in the March on Washington; the outbreak of the urban riots starting 20 years ago in Watts and spreading in successive waves and summers to such places as Newark and Detroit and New York; the seemingly endlessly worsening involvement in Vietnam that kept the capital in thrall year after year; and the summers of Watergate, from break-in to daily dramatic disclosure before the televised Watergate committee hearings on the Hill and on to the denouement with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
Even the summers that followed were marked by crisis atmosphere, created perhaps by the taste for them in both press and public, and a dearth of real news.
It's hard to realize now, but the Bert Lance Affair was treated as a great consuming scandal akin to Watergate just a few seasons ago. It dominated the daily headlines and led the network nightly news telecasts.
And of course you remember the great Hugel Scandal of the summer of '81? You don't? Max Hugel? CIA and Casey, demands for Casey's head, calls for his resignation by none other than Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.)? Look it up. It was big news then, in that summer in Washington.
Or, a bit later, the celebrated Honegger Case? Come on, don't play dumb. Honegger, Barbara Honegger, special assistant in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Summer of '83: President Reagan and women, Reagan and civil rights, Reagan reneging on his commitment to remove "gender discrimination from federal laws and rules." You still don't remember? Honegger -- the "low-level Munchkin"! Okay, now you've got it. Hot stuff that season.
And of course before that we had the Iranian hostage situation. (One story, "Spy Dust," had all the elements of a manufactured-for-the-media event; but it never took, quietly faded away.) And so, for a time this season, we were in danger of having a repeat of the Iranian crisis in the form of the Trans World Airlines hijacking episode in Beirut. It, too, received news attention far out of proportion to its significance.
But, happily, since then unaccustomed normality has reigned. Even the president's sudden hospitalization and major surgery for cancer -- a truly important development -- was taken in stride.
With the departure of Congress and the president, Washington has taken on its old airs and its old summer charms. It has been, once again, a place for leisure and tourism and recreation, for delightful outdoor evening concerts at Wolf Trap and picnics at Great Falls and sailing on the bay, a place where no one seems to get too excited, where the traffic is blessedly manageable and even the city's taxis -- to me, the worst in this country, growing more so in their inefficiency and in the rudeness of their drivers and their penchant to rip off the unwary and unsuspecting -- have been tolerable. Well, some of the time anyway.
The greatest source of excitement, of intense interest and conversation, has not been over issues foreign or domestic -- or even over the old foolish Washington game of deciding who's ahead in the always forthcoming presidential sweepstakes. It has been over a rock concert by the young singer and new folk hero Bruce Springsteen.
Wonder of wonders, even Washington's notorious summer weather has cooperated in creating a better climate. (In pre-air-conditioning days, this capital city was an officially designated "hardship post" for diplomats because of our swampy, sweltering, unhealthful summer climate.) With a few notable exceptions this summer, we've had delightedly fresh and unseasonably mild days.
What accounts for this more positive atmosphere I cannot say. Perhaps these are signs of new maturity on the part of the city and its inhabitants, those of us in the news media and politics alike. Perhaps it's all part of the legacy of the more relaxed and less worrisome era of Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the old charmer has succeeded, if not in cutting the size of government, then in reducing some of our tensions and our penchant to strain needlessly at gnats. Perhaps it's the imminent return of Halley's Comet.
Whatever, it's been great. We desperately needed a breather in Washington, a cleansing of our omnipresent stale hot air and a lowering of our dangerously high body politic temperature.
Will it last? Of course not. September is upon us, the ants are returning to the federal tunnels, the big players are on their way back, the agenda has been laid out -- and it's a whopper, with no easy winners anywhere in sight. All we face in the immediate days ahead are battles of just about everything from deficits to tax reform and farm crisis to South African agony and arms talks with the Soviets to new weapons tests in outer space. And there's no consensus about any of them.
So enjoy it while you can on this last long weekend of the official summer seaons, citizens of the capital. It's bound to get worse before it gets better.